The January transfer window is two weeks closed and Heart of Midlothian’s squad is in a healthy state. Steven Naismith treated the window with a light touch, bringing in Dexter Lembikisa and Scott Fraser on loan as like-for-like replacements for Odel Offiah and Alex Lowry, both of whom returned to their parent clubs. Andy Halliday, who had barely featured this season, departed for Motherwell, and Michael McGovern joined Livingston.

All in all, it has to be considered a fairly successful window. Retaining the services of Lawrence Shankland was the obvious top priority, and this was always going to be a window about keeping things ticking over. The team are well on track to finish third and no comprehensive overhaul was required. Lembikisa has already shown more in his handful of appearances than Offiah did during the first half of the season, while Fraser also looks to be a savvy addition. Throw in a pre-contract move for Yan Dhanda and there really isn’t all that much to complain about.

With the squad now finalised for the remainder of the campaign, now seems as good a time as any to examine its composition. Does the team have the necessary depth across the pitch to get through the remainder of the season, and are there any positions we should be concerned about? What sellable assets does the club have, and when are they likely to move on? How is the squad shaping up in the long term? Let’s take a look.

READ MORE: Tom Irving: Eight smart transfer options Hearts could consider

Squad depth

There are currently 26 players vying for a place in Naismith’s starting XI each week – 21 first-team players, and five homegrown youngsters attempting to break into the senior side. It’s a fairly standard size, allowing for roughly two players in every position and a few more dotted about the squad to fill it out. Naismith’s propensity for changing the formation depending on the opponent means he needs options, and that’s certainly what he has.

The two graphics below highlight the squad depth when playing in a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3, the two most commonly used formations this season. The back four seems like it's here to stay, so it's probably worth focusing more on that. It’s not a perfect representation (it doesn’t account for versatile players who can fulfill various roles, for instance) but it does provide us with an indication of Hearts’ strength in depth. Players in red are currently injured, and those in yellow are on loan until the end of the season. 

Hearts Standard:

There are largely plenty of options across the park, but a few potential problem positions jump out. Left wing-back is one of them if Naismith plans on using the back three regularly. Only two players – Alex Cochrane and Stephen Kingsley – are naturals in the position and without one or both of them, the backline starts to look threadbare.

Take the recent 3-2 win away to Dundee as an example. Nathaniel Atkinson and Kye Rowles were at the Asian Cup, and Kingsley and Craig Halkett were ill. The latter made the bench but was unable to start the game. It meant that Naismith only had four defenders available to him – he couldn’t play with a back three even if he wanted to.

Naismith might well have always planned to play 4-2-3-1 against Dundee, but the fact remains that he had little choice in the matter. It’s an extreme example, and the return of Rowles and Atkinson means the head coach is unlikely to be as short of options again this season, but the left of defence is still looking a little short of bodies. If either Kingsley or Cochrane were to pick up a long-term injury, the other would have to start pretty much every single game until his team-mate returned, regardless of fitness or form.

Striker is perhaps another area of slight concern within the 4-3-3. Shankland, of course, will play as much as possible between now and the end of the season but if he picks up an injury, centre-forward could become an issue. Kyosuke Tagawa has failed to seize his chance thus far, and Liam Boyce has struggled with injury across the past two campaigns. That just leaves Kenneth Vargas. The Costa Rican’s form has improved lately, and four goals in his last eight games is certainly encouraging, but being the focal point in attack and the team’s primary source of goals is a lot to ask of a young player who is still adjusting to the Scottish game.

It’s a similar story in the No.6 position when Hearts line up in a 3-5-2. We’ve previously examined how no one can quite do what Baningime does, and any long-term absence could cause problems. Peter Haring is currently injured and seemingly unfancied by Naismith anyway, and Calem Nieuwenhof has been played there but without fully convincing. Macaulay Tait has impressed off the bench in recent weeks but the youngster has just 72 minutes of Premiership football this season, and it’s asking an awful lot from him to go from the odd cameo off the bench to starting most games. Tait has a big future ahead of him with Naismith viewing him as a No.6. Should Baningime leave once his contract expires then another experienced player in here wouldn't hurt. It's a position that requires a lot of responsibility and mistakes can be costly.

Aside from these three areas, though, you have to say that Hearts are well-stocked across the board. There are plenty of areas where Naismith has multiple options and different types of players for each position, even if a first-team regular picks up an injury or a suspension.

Notice, too, the age profile of the squad. Take another look at the diagrams above. Most of the first-choice picks are in their mid-to-late 20s, while their understudies are often a few years younger. It’s mainly established players approaching the peak of their powers that make up the strongest XI, with up-and-coming young players waiting in the wings.

READ MORE: How Steven Naismith helped Kye Rowles rediscover his defensive mojo

Composition – transfers and development

Hearts’ squad depth is pretty encouraging, and should be enough to get the team through to the end of the season without too many unwelcome selection headaches. But this is modern football, where developing your players over the long term and selling them at a profit is central to the trading model.

The Hearts squad can be broken down into five broad categories: experienced Premiership players with little or no sell-on value; experienced first-team players signed from other leagues with little or no sell-on value; developed players who could conceivably attract bids in the not-too-distant future; long-term development players who can be sold for a profit down the line; and young players to supplement the first-team squad.

1) Experienced Premiership players

Bids unlikely, little or no sell-on value

Craig Gordon, Zander Clark, Craig Halkett, Stephen Kingsley, Peter Haring, Alan Forrest, Barrie McKay, Liam Boyce.

A group that will make up a large chunk of the squad. Players who understand the league, don’t need to acclimatise to their surroundings and are fairly reliable performers. Unlikely to make the club much money in the market. Usually signed after impressing for another Premiership side further down the table.

2) Experienced first-team players signed from other leagues

Bids unlikely, little or no sell-on value

Frankie Kent, Jorge Grant, Scott Fraser (currently on loan but could move permanently).

Players brought in from other leagues that can take time to settle, but are expected to be first-team regulars. Approaching the peak of their careers and unlikely to move for substantial fees.

3) Developed

Could conceivably attract substantial bids relatively soon

Kye Rowles, Alex Cochrane, Nathaniel Atkinson, Cammy Devlin, Beni Baningime (contract expires at end of the season), Lawrence Shankland.

The star pupils. Players that have been brought to Gorgie at relatively low expense with a view to developing them and selling for a profit. First-team regulars who have impressed consistently, and who could be on the radar of clubs with deep pockets.

4) Developing

Could conceivably sell for a profit with further development

Toby Sibbick, Calem Nieuwenhof, Yutaro Oda, Kyosuke Tagawa, Kenneth Vargas (currently on loan but likely to move permanently).

Young players with potential who could perhaps fetch significant transfer fees in the future, but who have still to develop. Players will feature regularly and if they can progress, can become first-team stalwarts.

5) Youth

Supplement first team

Macaulay Tait, Aidan Denholm, Finlay Pollock, James Wilson, Adam Forrester.

Players who have impressed for Hearts B, have been included in matchday squads for the senior side and are ready for the next step up. Used sparingly throughout the season, usually confined to substitutes’ appearances. Important to provide game time to help develop.

Hearts’ transfer model works like this. Players in (1) provide consistency and reliability, and can be considered a relatively safe pair of hands. They’re unlikely to attract bids in the transfer window, and most will likely leave the club for nothing. That’s okay though – their job is to perform in the here and now. The hope is that players in (2) eventually transition into (1) once they have enough experience under their belts. Grant is probably somewhere between the two, for instance.

The next three categories are where the market comes into play. Those players in (3) have all improved significantly from when they first pitched up at Tynecastle, and losing any of them without receiving a fee would be a bitter pill to swallow. They are all important players, of course, and losing any of them would weaken the squad, but this is where the money is. Any player in (3) could conceivably attract seven-figure bids in the relatively near future and although there will be negotiations to be held, Hearts need to get into the habit of selling on players for sizable profits if the transfer model is to work.

The hope is that players in (4) will one day move up to (3), but this will take a little time. These tend to be players in their early 20s, usually purchased from foreign leagues where there is perceived value to be found. These are players who have potential but are still a little raw and need some further fine-tuning before they are likely to be on the radar of richer clubs. The hope is that the club’s youth players in (5) will develop to this point, with Hearts B then replacing them in the first team.

It’s a nice conveyor belt if Hearts can get it going but there is one small area of concern. Look at the players in the first category again. Gordon, Halkett, McKay and Boyce have all suffered substantial injuries during their time in EH11, and Haring, while injured at the moment, has fallen down the pecking order. As the players that form the crux of the squad, it’s important that those in (1) are consistently fit and available. If they are not, then their place in the squad becomes under threat.

READ MORE: The Hearts Park Ji-Sung: Why Steven Naismith wants new Alan Forrest deal

Summer squad building

There will be a few changes to the squad by the time the transfer window reopens in the summer. Lembikisa will return to Wolves, but Vargas’ move seems likely to be made permanent. Given Fraser’s hopes of remaining in Scotland, he is another whose temporary stint in the capital might well last a little longer. Elsewhere, Baningime and Haring are out of contract. Andrew McKinlay is certainly hopeful of getting Baningime to extend his deal, but Haring may well want to move on for game time. Dhanda will also be joining on a free from Ross County, while Lewis Neilson will return from his season-long loan at Partick Thistle.

Barring any surprises, the graphic below shows how the squad will be shaping up come the end of the season. The players in yellow could yet move on at the end of the season, and those in red are out of contract in the summer of 2025.

There are some big names in there, players that fall into the all-important third category. Cochrane, Atkinson, Devlin and the biggest of them all, Shankland, will all go into the window in the final 12 months of their deals unless they sign extensions before then. Shankland’s future may be something of a unique case, but the club hierarchy have big decisions to make with the other three. If they cannot be convinced to re-sign, this summer is the last chance Hearts will have to make some money on them, but then they will have to be replaced. Hold onto them and rebuff any advances from other clubs, and Hearts run the risk of all three leaving for nothing next summer.

Offering Kingsley and Clark new deals seems like a fairly straightforward decision to make. Others – Sibbick, Grant, McKay and Boyce – are less certain, perhaps down to game time or injuries for example.

There are a few areas where further strengthening will be required, too. A new right-sided defender will be high on Naismith’s list of priorities once Lembikisa departs and as we’ve already examined, a new left-back wouldn’t go amiss either. Livingston's James Penrice is seemingly a target and, like Dhanda, would fall into (1) should the move transpire. Another No.6 would help to flesh out the squad, as would a left winger and a striker.

READ MORE: The key changes that show how Hearts' first-team regulars are evolving

Big summer ahead

The squad is in a good place at present and has a nice balance to it, but there is always room for improvement. With some of Hearts’ most sellable assets approaching the end of their contracts, there are some big decisions to be made and the club’s resolve to keep a hold of Shankland in particular will surely be tested.

Will Hearts look to extend the contracts of key players and provide stability to the first team? Or will it cash in on some of its prize assets, kick-starting the transfer model that it aspires to? If the club is to have the necessary resources to kick on domestically and in Europe, to reach the next level, then it will have to start doing so at one point or another. It’s a painful but necessary step to growing any club.

It's set to be an intriguing summer at Hearts – and it may well involve some big calls with another possible group stage sojourn on the horizon.